Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rare Earth Elements and Thorium Power.

97% of world market supplies of rare earth elements (REEs) come from China and look to become insecure in regard to meeting "green" energy targets, since exports of REEs are scheduled to be retained for Chinese energy projects. REEs are essential raw materials for the fabrication of high-performance magnets in hybrid cars and wind-turbines. Monazite sands contain around 45 - 48 % cerium, 24% lanthanum, 17% neodymium, 5% praseodymium, along with minor quantities of samarium, gadolinium and yttrium. Europium concentrations tend to be low, in the region of 0.05%, and very low concentrations of the heaviest lanthanides in monazite accord with the term "rare" earth for these elements, with correspondingly high prices. The thorium content of monazite is variable and can be as high as 20 - 30 %, although commercial monazite sands typically contain 6 - 12% thorium oxide. In view of the radioactive nature of thorium, a hazard is posed from waste produced in the processing of rare earth oxides, which contains it.

A controversial REE processing plant is to be built by the Australian based mining company Lynas in Malaysia where it is argued that environmental protection laws are less rigorous than in Australia. The plant is predicted to produce one third of global demand for REEs in two years, hence breaking the Chinese monopoly. It is intended to bury the thorium in concrete, but a better option would be to use the material as a nuclear fuel in place of uranium the price of which has recently risen above $100/pound, in coincidence with the price of crude oil which is now also above $100/barrel.

Now thorium cannot be used directly as a fuel but must first be bombarded with neutrons and "bred" into uranium-233 as the nuclear fuel using slow neutrons, thus avoiding the liquid sodium coolant of uranium-plutonium breeder reactors, and which has the following additional advantages. (1) Plutonium and uranium could still be consumed in a thorium reactor, but without the need to manufacture more” plutonium. (2) While uranium-235 and plutonium-239 can be shielded to avoid detection in a suitcase to use that cliche, uranium-233 could not, because it is always contaminated with uranium-232, a strong gamma-ray emitter, which is far less easily concealed as a bomb.There is the final matter of the exact means for obtaining energy from thorium, for example using very large accelerator driven systems (ADS). A more modest alternative is the "Liquid Fluoride Reactor" (LFR), which is described and discussed in considerable detail on the http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/ blog, and it appears likely that the LFR may provide the best means to achieve our future nuclear energy programme.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Oil Reserves and Fracking.

Oil production is somewhat confounded by the reference more lately to “liquids” rather than “oil”, which includes hydrocarbons that are recovered, sometimes in great quantity, from natural gas wells, which condense from the gas in liquid form once the temperature drops below the dew-point. The latter are also called condensates, and to their volume may be added natural gas liquids, hydrocarbons that exist in fields as constituents of natural gas but which are recovered separately as liquids, including propane, butane, pentane, hexane and heptane, but not methane and ethane, since these hydrocarbons need refrigeration to be liquefied. Thus the production of oil per se may be falling worldwide but total liquids have so far held pace with demand.

Unconventional oil is a complex, vexed and multifarious subject, and strictly, the above liquids should be classified under this heading. More “conventional” oil will certainly be recovered, and we are in no sense running out of it. The world proved oil reserves are close to 1.2 trillion (1,200 billion) barrels, to be compared with 6,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.3 Since the commonly used conversion factor is that 1 barrel of oil has an energy equivalent to 6,000 cubic feet of natural gas, the remaining energy reserves of the two kinds of fuel appear nearly equal. There is almost certainly far more oil in the ground to be recovered than this, but I stress it is the rate of recovery that is the more pressing issue, not so much how big the reserve is in total. If the rate of recovery of oil remains too slow to meet (rising) demand, we will experience a demand-supply gap within the next decade, a situation that has been described as “gap oil”. At best the maximum in oil production, peak oil, might be delayed, a situation that will enlarge the gap.

There is also the issue of the quality of crude oil. Light sweet (low sulphur) crude is the most desirable as it can be easily refined into gasoline, which is burned in spark-ignition engines, world production of which peaked in 2005. Brands of light sweet crude include West Texas Intermediate, Brent oil from the North Sea, and of course that from Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Heavy sour (high sulphur) crude requires removal of the sulphur and catalytic cracking of the longer carbon chain molecules to shorter species in order to recover petrol from it in quantity. This necessitates more complex and expensive refining methods to process heavy sour oil, for which there is presently insufficient capacity worldwide. Hence new refineries will need to be built as the oil recovered in the future tends more toward the heavy kind, which is better used to make diesel fuel, requiring further a greater production of diesel engines.

“Fracking” is a term that has been used frequently and condescendingly in the media recently, in the context of recovering gas from shale. It is claimed that 10% of Britain’s gas-requirements could be provided from shale and there is a pilot project about to be inaugurated onshore near Blackpool, otherwise famous as a holiday resort with its “illuminations”, “kiss-me-quick” hats, “sticks of rock” and “big-dipper” rollercoaster. The process of hydraulic fracturing (called frac’ing in the industry but fracking in the media) has been used since 1947 to fracture rock to assist the recovery of oil and gas. A hydraulic fracture is formed by pumping a fracturing fluid into a borehole drilled into the source-rock so that the downhole pressure exceeds that of the fracture gradient of the formation rock.

The pressure causes the formation to crack, so that the fracturing fluid may enter and extend the crack more deeply into the formation. To keep the fracture open once the injection is complete, a solid proppant, commonly a sieved round sand, is added to the fracture fluid. The propped hydraulic fracture then becomes a high permeability conduit through which the formation fluids can flow to the well. Since the fluid contains various toxic materials, including hydrocarbons, benzene etc., there are environmental fears that these may leak out and contaminate e.g. aquifers from which drinking water is drawn. There are cases reported too, where methane can leak-out further afield into wells and tap-water in sufficient quantity that it can be ignited! That such measures are being seriously considered appears as an abject demonstration of desperation. It seems clear that oil-supplies are going to fail at some point and sooner not later.

Given the limited timescale, it is improbable that unconventional oil can be implemented in sufficient amount to take up the slack from conventional production on that 30 billion barrel annual equivalent scale. Agreed that all of that quantity does not need to be replaced in one go, but the ramping-up of unconventional production as the former declines will be unable to meet the shortfall, leading to a rapid decline in the number of the 700 million vehicles that currently grace the world’s roads. There is a further impact on aviation and rising demand for it, which already consumes almost one quarter of all fuel used in the United Kingdom, and is also unlikely to be met. Globalism will fade while "localism", involving a way of life based around small communities appears an almost certain default outcome.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Middle East Tensions and Peak Oil.

Political tensions in the Middle East once again remind us of the fragile dependency of the Western nations on imported petroleum, which have driven the price of a barrel of crude oil to above $100, as was the case prior to the world economic crash in 2008. British motorists and owners of haulage companies flinch nervously in the face of rising prices at the pumps for fuel, feared to reach £2.00/litre if events fail to calm down, since supplies of crude oil from Libya, already cut by 500,000 barrels per day from 1.6million bpd, may fall to zero, leading to shortages and further hikes in oil and consequently fuel prices.

Saudi Arabia have “promised” to make-up the difference by pumping out more oil, but there is doubt as to whether they have in fact sufficient spare capacity to do so, certainly not the light crude which is exported to Europe for refining into petrol. There is, for that matter, some controversy over how much oil the kingdom does have in its reserves in total, which are thought might be far less than is claimed. The latter aspect is critical to the timing of “peak oil”, a phenomenon proposed as long ago as 1956 by Dr M. King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist working for the Shell Development Company. Hubbert’s predictions were made for the lower-48 states of America, that U.S. oil production would peak in either 1965 or 1970, depending on the volume of the reserve that he estimated, i.e. the total amount of oil that would ultimately be recovered given prevailing technology and oil-prices.

Western civilization has been built literally on sand – underpinned by the desert sands under which most of the petroleum lies. Our position is thus precarious, resting upon an ability to import ever greater quantities of crude oil, to furnish economic and material growth. In the case of the lower-48 U.S. fields, oil production did indeed peak in 1970, as Hubbert predicted, and by application of similar reasoning the peak in world oil production can be expected to be close to the present time. The CEO of Shell has stated that the world will be unable to meet its demand for oil by 2015, while other commentators think so as early as 2012.

Most of the major oil companies are investing in deep-drilling technologies to recover oil from less accessible regions of the Earth, including the Arctic, and it is likely that there will be further “accidents” such as occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, as new technologies and regions are developed to advance the map of as yet uncharted territory from which to slake our thirst for oil.